Kanker, Jan 27 (PTI) Ajay Kumar Mandavi, one of the three persons chosen from Chhattisgarh for the Padma Shri awards this year, has for more than a decade been teaching Kanker jail inmates, several of them arrested in cases related to the outlawed Maoist movement, wooden calligraphy art.
Speaking about the honour, the 55-year-old on Friday said he becomes more of a counsellor than a wood art trainer when he enters the jail premises as many inmates recount their pain and problems to him even without being prodded about their past.
Mandavi, who hails from Kanker district, said making toys out of wood and clay was a childhood interest, which turned him into an artist later in life, resulting in him training youth, several of them victims of Naxalite violence, from 2005.
He was asked by the then collector of Kanker to teach wood art to jail inmates in 2010, when the Maoist menace was at its peak in the district.
He began his classes with a dozen inmates, all of them held for alleged Maoist links, a journey that has been instrumental in motivating many of them to understand the futility of violence and the need to live fulfilling, peaceful lives.
"I never asked them (jail inmates) about their past. However, they often share their pain and problems with me and I listen to them patiently. Gradually my role became that of a counsellor than just an art trainer. I too started enjoying counselling them," Mandavi said.
"One of the inmates, who was subjected to rigorous interrogation post arrest in a Naxalite-related case, once said he wanted to observe the nine-day Navratri fast but wanted me to suggest some wish he could seek from the goddess," he said.
On being told he should forgive all the security personnel involved in his custodial interrogation, the inmate readily agreed, resulting in him admitting to being relaxed and stress free at the end of the nine-day fast, Mandavi claimed.
"He told me he has forgiven all those who interrogated him. So far, I have taught around 400 inmates of Kanker jail, of which 250 were arrested for Naxalite-related incidents. Nearly all of them have walked out of jail after completing prison terms, while some have been released on bail," Mandavi, fondly called 'Guruji' by his students, said.
Mandavi said these students have not only continued practising wooden calligraphy art after being released from jail, but they also claim to be more attentive while engaged in various works, including farming.
"What can be a bigger achievement than this for me if a person who once wielded rifles returns to the mainstream and leads a peaceful life," Mandavi, who founded self help group 'Shanta Art' in 2015 in remote Bhaisasur village in Kanker, said.
The group, which includes several former Naxalites, makes nameplates, key rings, pen case and other items for sale from wood, with Mandavi often sending his students to fairs across the country to earn revenue from their craft.
Apart from Mandavi, eminent Pandvani singer Usha Barle and Nacha artiste Domar Singh Kunvar have been selected for the Padma Shri awards from the state.
Barle hails from Durg district and learnt Pandwani, a traditional performing art form, from Padma Vibhushan awardee Teejan Bai, a legendary exponent of the traditional performing art form. Barle has performed in London and New York.
Kunvar, who belongs to Balod district, has been widely recognised for his fight against the social ill of child marriage. PTI TKP BNM BNM